Ogden has a history of being one of Utah’s most diverse cities, and one of its richest sources of Black History.
February is the month of the year honoured to Black History in the United States of America, celebrating the monumental achievements and dedicated to not forgetting the plight of Black Americans.
Although Utah as a state isn't known for its Black population, some of the first Black Utahns spent a great deal of time in the state's oldest trading post, Fort Buenaventura, which eventually became Ogden.
Within two decades of the establishment of Fort Buenaventura and its purchase by Mormon settlers, the Transcontinental Railroad was nearing completion at Promontory Summit. Crews, consisting primarily of Chinese immigrants, worked the line eastward from California on the Central Pacific, while crews consisting mainly of Civil War veterans, Irish immigrants, and recently emancipated Black Americans worked westward on the Union Pacific line.
Railroad barons, politicians, bankers, and religious leaders negotiated the final meeting point at Promontory Summit, 53 miles northwest of present-day Ogden.
After the last spike was driven, and photos of dignitaries were taken, the railroad companies had to decide on an actual junction point. Ultimately, it was agreed that Ogden, with access to abundant resources, would be known as "Junction City," a nickname that Ogden carries to this day.
After the completion of the railroad, several Black, Chinese, and Irish rail workers suddenly found themselves out of a job while holding their final chunk of pay in Ogden. Planting their roots, the city instantly became one of Utah's most diverse.
Despite having worked alongside one another during the railroad's construction, the racial sentiments of the day segregated the primary street outside the junction into two sides.
White people took over the north side of the street, while Chinese and Black people were forced to the south side. Either way, you could get what you wanted for a quarter on either side of 25th Street, also known then as "Two-Bit Street."
Looking at today's 25th Street, Roosters Brewing Company was a Chinese laundry for many years. Today, it's where you sip a craft beer under a pride flag.
The most legendary and game-changing place on 25th Street was the Porters & Waiters Club, located at 127 25th Street.
Founded in 1912 by Billy Weakly and Frank Turner, it was originally a boarding house for Black railroad porters and waiters to gather socially and sleep between their shifts on the Central Pacific or Union Pacific routes.
By World War II, the club could house over 100 men at the cost of $0.50 a night. Guests could play pool, pinball, and sometimes even gamble. They could also get beer and sandwiches during their stay.
It was said the club became so famous that a letter from anywhere in the world could be easily delivered to anyone with the simple address, "Porters & Waiters, Ogden."
In 1945, a young saxophone player named Joe McQueen found himself in Ogden. Visiting for a two-week gig, he loved the town so much that he decided to stay. He made Ogden his home, playing and residing there for the next several decades.
In 1947, a woman named AnnaBelle joined the management team of the Porters & Waiters Club when she married Billy Weakley. Shortly thereafter, Joe McQueen convinced Billy and AnnaBelle to turn the basement of their building into a jazz club. Joe mentioned he was allowed to run his club as long as he took care of setting up the tables and chairs, and taking them down.
After proving himself, he said that he was eventually given a key to access the club at any hour.
Joe’s passion for music, his skill at his craft and his heart in the art became legendary. It traveled not just the main lines of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, but all of its subsidiaries and spurs.
Trains laid over in Ogden at all hours. A passenger might have up to 18 hours to wait for their connection headed in any one of 9 directions.
At any hour, world-class touring musicians would roll into Ogden with a scrap of paper in their pocket from a fellow musician that read, “Ogden. Joe McQueen” followed by a five-digit phone number.
They’d call at any hour and Joe would answer, mumble a few words and tell his wife, Thelma, that he’d be back.
Who was calling?
Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Paul Gonsalves, Lester Young, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and Ray Charles. Joe would unlock the club and jam with them until just before the whistle blew on the train that carried them to the next gig.
Beyond those documented sessions, it’s unclear whether Joe was around when the Porters & Waiters Club hosted Fats Domino, B.B King, and Marvin Gaye. Joe may have been on the road. Only Thelma knows.
By 1951, the club desegregated due to the number of white Weber State students wanting to cross the street from north to south to hear not just the best music in town, but in the nation. It didn’t take long before Porters & Waiters Club was the single hottest spot in the city, kids were crossing the street wherever they wanted.
By the mid-50s, other nearby clubs and bars began to suffer financially and knew that they needed a bit of that Joe McQueen magic. They offered better pay, better hours, better anything, but Joe refused, insisting that he wouldn’t play anywhere that his friends couldn’t come hear him. Unless Black people were allowed, Joe wouldn’t play.
The passage of time and the power of local lore would have you believe that Joe’s principled stance and a few soulful notes from his saxophone immediately shattered racial divides in Ogden and ushered in complete harmony, but the truth is it took time and continued struggle from Ogden’s Black community. However, virtually every historical account of Ogden’s black history mentions the tremendous contributions of Joe McQueen and AnnaBelle Weakley.
It’s why multiple murals of Anna Belle Weakly and Joe McQueen exist in this town, why the Governor of Utah established April 18th as “Joe McQueen Day” back in 2002 and why the Utah State Legislature recognized his 100th birthday in 2019, before he passed away, shortly after his last gig later that year. Ogden proudly remembers Joe and AnnaBelle, not just during Black History Month but every night when you can hear the music coming from 25th street.